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GM: is opinion more important than science?

Posted by on January 3, 2013

by Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

Today’s announcement by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson that the British public should be persuaded of the benefits of genetically modified crops has predictably caused controversy.

The top message from anti-GM campaigners seems to be ‘you’re wrong about GM – the public don’t want it’. GM Freeze, quoted in the Telegraph, says: “The message is clear: the public do not want GM.”

While there is no doubt some truth in this, the fact that ‘the public’ have reservations about GM has no bearing on whether GM is safe and effective; public opinion is not evidence for risks from GM.  But could ‘people don’t want GM’ be a valuable argument for the Government ignoring scientific evidence about potential benefits?

I found a prime example of the conflict between science and public opinion in this article on GM from the Daily Mail. The piece is scientifically flawed, most notably by quoting the study by Seralini which was rejected by the European Food Safety Authority. However, the comments below the article are very much along the lines of ‘politicians should know everyone is anti GM’.

When a plant scientist pointed out scientific flaws, his comment was ‘thumbed down’ by lots of readers, as was the next commenter who called for ‘our most trusted and respected scientists to comment’ (if you want to thumb them back up, take a moment to click on this link).

Other than leaving me generally frustrated, this argument has raised in my mind an interesting question, predictably nothing to do with GM. When science and public opinion conflict, which should shape the policy?

Owen Paterson said: “I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation.”

Is influencing public opinion in this way appropriate? In my mind, if he uses science to inform this very valuable debate it can only be a good thing, but I would be very interested to hear your views, as I was to read Mark Lynas’ GM speech from today.

7 Responses to GM: is opinion more important than science?

  1. Jess Devonport

    Robin Ince and Brian Cox argue that “politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science”. I think this is quite relevant here.

  2. Rebecca Nesbit

    Interestingly, I recently read about an ESRC-funded study which concluded that denial of climate change was related to world view (political and interest in the environment) and not scientific understanding. Evidence gets ignored in favour of ideology.

  3. Kim (@kim_harding)

    I can help feeling there is a real problem not just with the public understanding of science but also with the way in which a large part of the environmental movement has been hijacked by those with a narrow political agenda. This politicisation has polarised attitudes to science in a very damaging manor, which make the public unwilling to listen to the real science, particularly on GM and global climatic change. It has become less and less about rational informed debate and more about who can shout the loudest.

  4. Rebecca Nesbit

    Agreed completely! And as the people able to interpret the evidence, we probably have a responsibility to promote its use by the public and politicians.

  5. Matt Ravenhall

    If public opinion is based on misunderstandings, it only makes sense that those with the evidence come forward and inform those without it. It could even be considered as a moral obligation.

    To allow public opinion to be swayed by things which are demonstrably false is to sit back as progress is destroyed.

    However, whilst Paterson is correct in saying that there is a duty to reassure the public that GM foods are safe, we should also be careful to put the emphasis on the evidence, not the scientists. Comments implying that the decision should be in the hands of the scientists undermine science itself by making it seem as nothing more than arguments from authority.

    Education with solid evidence is required, the general public deserve nothing less. After all, democracy is nothing without an informed electorate.